Mercury Theatre's BARNUM Is A Colorful Three Ring Success

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Reviewed by: RUSSELL GOELTENBODT

It has been many years since I have been to the Circus. I have always enjoyed the animals, the talent of the acrobats, the side-shows and of course the clowns. I am happy to say that The Mercury

Theater has brought the circus to Lakeview’s northside with their production of the musical “Barnum”. The circus feeling was truly evident while arriving at the theater being greeted by clowns on stilts and receiving a bag of pop-corn bringing the audience entering the show into the “Circus” mood, and that mood continued throughout the performance of Barnum.

Barnum follows the life and loves of showman and entrepreneur, Phineas Taylor Barnum. P.T. Barnum who was intrigued by and mastered the art of “humbug” created a show that emphasized on the exploitation of the unbelievable. “Humbug” which was described by Barnum, as maybe film-flam, or a misleading act creates the illusion for the impossible. Mrs. Barnum strongly disagrees by saying, “humbug is to mislead, creates lies, and is full of schemes and dreams”. However, it was the “humbug that created the “Greatest Show on Earth” setting for this musical. If you have ever been to a circus side show, where you would see the unbelievable which included the world smallest man, the bearded lady, the strongman, and many more. P.T Barnum was able to create the American Museum, and pair this “humbug with acrobats, clown comedy, magic, animal taming, and showmanship. The Mercury Theater and cast of “Barnum” has succeeded in bringing the illusion and this fabulous show to life.

Barnum is written by Mark Bramble, with music and lyrics by the respective musical greats, Cy Coleman and Michael Stewart and was originally produced and premiered on Broadway in 1980 where it ran for 854 performances. The show was was nominated for ten Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical and Best Original Score. Jim Dale won the Tony for the title role.

The Mercury Theater’s production is the first major Chicago revival of the show in over 20 years. The Chicago production of “Barnum” is directed by the amazing team of Jeff Award winners, Director, L. Walter Stearns; Musical Director, Eugene Dizon, and Co-Choreographers, Brenda Didier, and Andrew Waters. All of these talented artists produced this monumental show in this intimate space, which includes all of the whimsical entertainment of the circus which was trained by Actor’s Gymnasium Circus Director, Sylvia Hernandez-DiStasi. It was amazing to see the cast tumbling, juggling, uni-cycling, balancing on ropes and doing back flips landing on the shoulders of other cast members. Viewing this from the audience, you would think that these are trained circus performers who have been doing these circus acts for years.

The technical direction and designs were equally as impressive with scenic design, by Jacqueline and Richard Penrod, lighting by Jason Epperson; and sound by Mike Ross. The creation of the big top on stage was very creative and genuine. The lighting and sound were authentic and was successful in creating the illusion of the circus. Costume Design, by Carol Blanchard, was authentic and transported the cast and the audience to the mid-1800’s. The circus performers were able to change characters by simple prompts, by changing hats or props without having massive costume changes.

The Cy Coleman/Michael Stewart score is filled with “ragtime”, ballads and marches which include my favorites “A Sucker Born Every Minute”, “The Museum Song”, “Black and White” and “Come Follow the Band.” Some naysayers may say all of the music sounds similar. My response is, “Come on people, it’s the circus”! The music is a vital element for the time period and the story. It is the main component that makes this show authentic and real. The Musical Direction under the masterful direction of Eugene Dizon includes a 6-piece band, that sounds like 20-pieces. The band is masterfully placed onstage in full uniform creating the illusion of a full orchestra. The balance between the voices and the band were perfectly blended.

The cast led by Chicago native and Broadway, TV, film actor, and three time Jeff recipient; Gene Weygandt, who is P.T. Barnum. Gene’s portrayal of this entertainment genius is outstanding. Gene, who also played the Wizard of Oz in Wicked, truly became P.T Barnum. His took full control of the stage in this role, complete with acrobatics, was very impressive. It was very entertaining to see him juggling, doing a cartwheel and performing magic. I actually believe that he was doing all of these acts all of his life, rather than in preparation for this show. Actress and recording artist, Cory Goodrich is P.T. Barnum’s wife, Charity. Cory who is no stranger to the Mercury Theater, (a 2 year veteran, has been seen and beautifully performed in “The Christmas Schooner”), became Barnum’s loving, and supportive wife and partner. Cory is a four-time Jeff nominee who was honored with the award for her portrayal of “Mother” in Ragtime at Drury Lane Theatre. Aside from her wonderful voice, Cory managed an impressive juggling act as well. Summer Naomi Smart is opera’s “Swedish Nightingale” Jenny Lind, who Barnum brought from Europe to bring some authenticity to his shows, as well as his mistress. Summer is the perfect person for this part. Her voice is beautifully trained and she really does sound like a nightingale. Summer received a Jeff Award for her portrayal of “Charity Hope Valentine” in Sweet Charity at Drury Lane Theatre. She also earned a Jeff Award for her role in The Light in the Piazza at the Marriott Theatre.

This very talented ensemble include cast members; Kevin McKillip as “the Ringmaster” and Christian Libonati as the world’s smallest man, “General Tom Thumb.” The talented circus performers are Karissa Barney, Nathan Drackett, Kris Hyland, Taylor Krasne-Wilton, Jeremy Sonkin, Ryan Westwood and J. Tyler Whitmer. Aside from the masterful circus performances, they master the singing and the dancing incredibly in this fabulous show. The ensemble is intently directed and choreographed, and the show moves at a circus pace.

The 2013 Mercury Theater season has not disappointed thus far. The remainder of the season promises to be equally as entertaining including a lineup of “The Color Purple” in August, and the wonderful holiday tradition, “The Christmas Schooner” in November. I strongly recommend Barnum, don’t miss it! Be a clown, and enjoy Barnum. I know I did.

Barnum runs through June 16, 2013 at the Mercury Theatre, 3745 N. Southport Ave., Chicago. For more information, including ticket purchasing visit www.mercurytheaterchicago.com or call the box office at 773.325.1700. Tickets are $25-$59. Runtime is 2hrs 15min with one intermission. For calendar information visit www.theatreinchicago.com